A Wobbly Wedding for Juilliard and the Metropolitan Opera

5148bride 0689c A Wobbly Wedding for Juilliard and the Metropolitan Opera These days, when James Levine conducts, it makes a statement. And in the midst of a series of health-related cancellations over the past month, he left three opera performances conspicuously untouched. They weren’t the performances with the biggest stars, or even those with the most immediate implications for his career. In fact, they weren’t even at the Metropolitan Opera, where Mr. Levine is the music director, and they featured student singers.

So it was perhaps surprising to some that Mr. Levine didn’t skip the run of Bedrich Smetana’s The Bartered Bride at the Juilliard School from Feb. 15 to Feb. 20. But this was not just another conservatory production. It was, in a sense, Mr. Levine’s baby: the inaugural offering of a new partnership between Juilliard and the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, a partnership that has the potential to transform the way young singers rise at the Met.

The new partnership, marked by a shiny “Met+Juilliard” logo, was announced in February 2008 but had been a priority of Mr. Levine’s for years, even decades, before that. He founded the Met’s young artist program in 1980 and has long advocated for a closer relationship with Juilliard, the kind of institutional partnership–bridging closely held fiefdoms–that can be excruciatingly difficult to make happen. That it happened at all is amazing, and it is a tribute to the size of the victory that Mr. Levine made a point of being on the podium.

When the partnership was first announced, Allan Kozinn wrote in The New York Times that it was “essentially an expansion of the Met’s young artist program,” which was renamed after a $10 million gift from George and Frayda Lindemann in 1998. The three-year program provides a stipend, coaching and some performance opportunities at the Met, usually in smaller roles.

The Lindemann program is a prestigious thing to have on one’s résumé, but as the pace of the opera world quickens, the Met seems to want to give its most promising singers earlier experiences playing major roles in high-profile productions. As Met general manager Peter Gelb told The Times, “One of the shortcomings of our young artist program in the past has been that when our young singers do get onstage, it’s typically in a smaller role. Getting a major role is rare. This will help give them that experience.”

So while the content of the young artist program will remain largely similar–participants will now be able to attend some classes at Juilliard–the significance is in giving added prominence to both the program and the school, which, while only a few hundred yards from the Met, has sometimes seemed much further away in terms of getting its students onstage. It is another way of making the Lindemann program even more attractive to young talent. “We have global talent scouts looking for artists who should be on our stage,” Mr. Gelb said, “and I think they should be looking for young singers who should be in this program as well.”

The centerpiece of the new partnership will be an annual production, either fully staged or in a concert version, co-presented by the Met and Juilliard and conceived, at least some of the time, as a trial run for a later, larger-scale production at the Met itself. That is the plan for this year’s Bartered Bride, a classic tale of a bumpy road to love in the Czech countryside and one of the most beloved of operatic comedies. Mr. Levine conducted a famous John Dexter production of the work at the Met in 1978, which he brought back to the company in 1996.

This “Met+Juilliard” production is by Stephen Wadsworth, who took over this season’s new production of Boris Godunov when Peter Stein dropped out late in the process. As in Boris, there was a great deal going on in Bartered Bride, but little seemed to happen. Every person onstage, down to the last chorister, seemed to have been given a backstory, an action to perform, a person to converse with, but the result felt artificial. The production, updated from the 1860s to the 1930s (because of budget reasons, Mr. Wadsworth wrote in a program note), resembled several of the Juilliard productions I’ve attended in the past few years: well prepared but a little staid, nicely sung and attractively designed but somehow unexciting. Mr. Levine’s conducting, similarly, was lacking not in polish but in fire.

The opera was performed in an English translation by the poet J.D. McClatchy, whose Magic Flute translation is sometimes performed by the Met and who recently published his versions of seven Mozart librettos. His work here, as in Mozart, tended toward the cutely, tediously self-regarding. And the bland choreography of Benjamin Millepied exemplified the Met’s recent taste for boldface names over effective artistry (remember the Herzog/de Meuron/Prada Attila?).

But the reason for the Met/Juilliard partnership is the singers, and they were uniformly charming. The stars, soprano Layla Clair and tenor Paul Appleby, sang well, and Mr. Appleby got many opportunities to act barely contained excitement, which he clearly enjoys. (Both he and Ms. Clair did their bits of dancing with more character, style and flair than the too-smooth Juilliard dancers in the company.)

But the production’s opening night was one of those cultural events whose significance goes far beyond what happens onstage. Who knows what the full artistic implications of the Met’s partnership with Juilliard will be over the coming decades, but it’s an institutional streamlining of a kind that happens only rarely at this level. And that is why Mr. Levine, even though he didn’t feel hardy enough to make it to the stage for his bow, made very sure he was there.

editorial@observer.com